SunEdison is moving into the water pump market with a solar powered product and a business plan designed to change the way farming is done in India and other emerging economies.

“The benefits make it possible to pay off a system in two-and-a-half to three years, because based on actual experience working with farmers in India, it can increase farm yields by up to 400 percent,” explained Pashupathy Shankar Gopalan, SunEdison Managing Director for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

To irrigate their crops, most of India’s farmers must now choose between an expensive, inefficient diesel-powered water pump or an even more expensive diesel-powered generator to drive an electric pump.

But as the cost of diesel rises, India’s farmers are using less of their land. And when the water table is below about 50 meters, it is too costly to run diesel pumps -- so farmers plant only a single, rain-fed crop.

To alleviate these problems, India’s central government subsidizes the 22 million farmers who have chosen to irrigate with electric pumps, Gopalan said. It is the biggest electric water pump market in the world.

With a solar water pump, farmers can increase yield by irrigating more land and by growing multiple crops year-round and by rotating crops, Gopalan said.

Variability is not an obstacle for this solar application because water does not need to be pumped every day of a growing season, Gopalan said. “There are about 60 to 70 days when weather conditions prevent the solar water pump systems from working. About half those days, it is raining. Pumping is unnecessary when it is raining. The other half of those days, it is cloudy or overcast. We have not yet determined whether that is a tolerable factor, but we expect it is.”

India’s irrigation subsidy program costs the government $10 billion annually, but the delivery of the allotted four hours of daily electricity from India’s grid is unreliable and inconvenient, and the resulting irrigation is inefficient, Gopalan said.

Because the electricity is typically delivered at night when low demand makes it cheapest, Gopalan explained, “thousands of farmers who go out into their fields to work in the dark have been bitten by snakes and died.”

The SunEdison solar water pump, available in 3 horsepower, 5 horsepower, 7.5 horsepower, and 10 horsepower models, was developed out of SunEdison’s Eradication of Darkness program. The pump is 45 percent efficient, the company says, and “[The system] costs between Rs. 450,000 and Rs. 550,000 ($7,000 and $9,000).”

“The bulk of the cost is for the solar installation,” Gopalan added. “A typical pump costs perhaps $500 of the $8,000 system.”

If the government were to cover $5,000 of that $8,000, Gopalan estimated, it could provide about 2 million systems every year for the $10 billion it spends annually to subsidize irrigation. “This has been a problem [that has been] holding India back for 50 years. They could eliminate it in ten to twelve years.”

There are about 250 working systems in five Indian states, Gopalan said, and the state of Rajasthan has an incentive program that pays 85 percent of the system cost that started at 1,000 systems and is now at 10,000 systems. “The federal government is expected to make a massive commitment to solar water-pumping in the coming year,” he added.

Beyond India, the solar water-pump market opportunity is potentially very big. While it scales up for India, SunEdison is finalizing plans for Africa and Southeast Asia, Gopalan said. “There about 45 million irrigation pumps in the world and about 70 percent are electric,” he explained.

Solar water pumps could also be used to move water in canals, to pump water in urban buildings, and to move water through industrial processing, he added.

Other solar companies may move into the market, especially when India’s government begins its subsidy program, Gopalan acknowledged. “We have two years of work on this. That is our advantage.”